Facing up to minority schools

Photo: European Union/Pietro Naj-Oleari (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Trevor Fisher says Starmer is on to a winner with private school status, but there must be wider changes

Does the Leader’s Office read Chartist? One might think so from Starmer’s pledge to abolish charitable status from fee-charging schools. A line in Hugh Gault’s book review in Chartist 319 may have struck a chord: “The crucial issue is the charitable status granted to private schools and the benefits of being VAT-exempt compared to state schools.” This resembled the pledge Starmer made at the end of November to abolish charitable status, which rattled many cages – notably the Prime Minister and the Daily Mail.

The Mail ran attacks on this on two front pages. On 28th November Starmer was accused of “class warfare” and a “spiteful attack on aspiration”. On the 29th, the accusation was of risking closing 200 private schools – which must be unable survive without a cash subsidy. On Wednesday 30th November, at Prime Minister’s Questions, regarding Rishi Sunak’s old school, Winchester, Starmer asked: “Winchester College has a rowing club, a rifle club, and an extensive art collection. It charges £45k per year. Why did the Prime Minister hand Winchester nearly £6m of taxpayers’ money this year, in what his levelling up minister called ‘egregious state support’?”

Sunak and Winchester

Sunak did not answer the question, but echoed the Mail’s claim Labour was “attacking aspiration”. Clearly, Starmer is on the right track, so is it time to simply say “well done, carry on”? Not really. No, the job is not even half done. The policy was advocated by Corbyn (a point picked up by the Mail) without making any impact in the 2019 election, and worse, was a Brown policy in the disastrous period of his premiership. It sparked a fight back, when the private schools went to court and claimed charitable exemption, and Brown lost another battle.

If Labour is not to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, the battle needs three victories, not one. The obvious target is to make the private schools work on the same basis as state schools, without tax handouts, charitable status and VAT exemptions. Secondly, Sunak needs to be holed beneath the waterline, as few people know he rose through the private school system. Thirdly, the need is to attack the coming man, who is not in the front line currently: Nigel Farage, the former Brexit Party leader and now leader of Reform UK. He has a link with the other aspect of the private school system: its output of over-privileged queue-jumping egotists – like Boris Johnson.

Farage and Eton

Last month, Farage was invited to Eton by the Political Society, a visit which made headlines. It triggered a wave of bullying politics of the kind familiar when Farage operates, when he took the opportunity to pour out the xenophobic and reactionary politics he is famous for – which, ominously, a report said produced cheering from the Hooray Henries of the expensive education Eton is designed to produce, specifically on his comments on immigration and Covid.

But worse was that the school had invited a group of schoolgirls from a local state school who were roundly abused. They were insulted for “taking up space in the lecture theatre”. Farage told the BBC the “atmosphere was riotous”. A parent reported that the girls were subjected to misogynistic and racist remarks and said, “My daughter said she thought it explained a lot about why the country is in the state it is in. Their behaviour was awful.” True – two of the last four prime ministers came from Eton: David Cameron and Boris Johnson.

We know that this did happen, because Eton apologised for their students’ behaviour. The school said: “The behaviour of some Eton pupils at a recent talk by Nigel Farage was totally unacceptable, and Eton has apologised unreservedly to those affected.

“Eton demands that all our pupils treat others with decency and respect. That did not happen on this occasion, and the school has investigated and sanctioned a number of pupils. The Head Master has addressed all boys to reinforce the school’s expectations.”

The future for the private school is starting to look less and less like a viable part of a civilised society. Once Eton was called ‘the gentlemen factory’, but nowadays it looks more like a production line for Hooray Henries.

For Winchester, the producer of the current Prime Minister, the intellectual content has always been its selling point. Why does it need a rifle club, a rowing club and an art collection? That is for Winchester to answer, and a rowing club does have good health effects. But whatever happens to Winchester, the political question is simple. Why are ordinary people paying for the privileges of the rich?

And for Labour, given the disaster of the Brown attempt to win the battle 15 years ago, how can the new attempt turn into a success – and a vote winner?


  1. In places like Hackney, the private schools are likely to be run by ultra-orthodox Jews or conservative Muslims which will complicate the politics no end. It will also be interesting to see what Diane Abbott and Seumas Milne have to say in view of their own choices. Don’t be surprised if this gets put in the “more difficult than we thought” box.

    • Perhaps you didn’t get the memo, Paul, but Abbott and Milne no longer hold influential positions in the Labour Party. Keep up!

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